CES 2024 major themes: sustainability and “right to repair” user devices

A big change for the just concluded CES 2024 was a focus on sustainability (as to what goes into smart devices) and the ability to repair user owned devices. The tech industry is now finally becoming more aware of the importance of sustainability — either because it’s recognizing that it needs to account for all the ways producing new technologies contributes to climate change, or because the growing public awareness of industrial impact on climate change means they can’t ignore their own contribution.

At the end of the show, Google announced its new policy supporting the Right to Repair movement and the user’s right to fix their own devices. This includes making tools, parts and repair manuals available to device owners — including Pixel phone owners. Combined with Google’s commitment to supply the latest Pixel 8 series with seven years of software updates, it seems like more device manufacturers are acknowledging consumer desire to keep their devices around for longer, which means fewer old devices thrown away into landfills and contributing to climate woes.

Over 70% of companies surveyed by IDC moved beyond the early stages of talking about sustainability and now need to make measurable progress on their set targets to please shareholders. Companies are reliably reporting their environmental impact data and using sustainability measures to find cost savings. Their next task is to stand out from the competition with their sustainability approaches. For IT professionals who can see the scaled impact of replacing products, using sustainable materials and recycling equipment is attractive. But consumers are still waking up to the impact of their frequent device upgrades.

“[Device] buyers are still asking about carbon emissions (upstream and downstream) but they also want to know about the materials that are being used, the recyclability of the product that they buy, etc.,” said Bjoern Stengel, Global Sustainability Research lead at the IDC. Getting the most use out of devices and reuse of their materials is becoming a major differentiator for those buying tech, especially in commercial uses like information technology.

More companies are pledging to use recycled materials in their products, which could help reduce emissions and waste by finding second lives for parts of old devices that would otherwise be headed for landfills, including metals and rare earth materials whose extraction and integration contribute to climate change.

Companies have been slowly shifting where they used recycled materials:

  • Samsung Electronics emphasized how sustainability is driving business activities at CES 2024.  The Sustainability Zone at Samsung’s booth ushered in visitors to discover how the company is promoting resource circularity and collaboration in addition to providing various accessibility services. Samsung had previously committed toward more recycled material in their product packaging by 2025, the company’s CES 2024 keynote reinforced its efforts to use recycled ocean plastic in phone and TV components. Samsung also pledged to reach net zero carbon emissions company-wide by 2050 with the device experience division using 100% renewable energy by 2027.
  • Panasonic pledged to reduce its use of resin plastic in its products and develop a system that blends recycled plastic with antioxidants and other materials in order to form new plastics ready to be included in products.

  • Dell has been using recycled materials since 2007 and recycled 2.5 billion pounds of materials since. The company is starting with plastics because, as Product Sustainability Lead Katie Green explained, those are the heaviest and highest-volume materials in the company’s products. The second heaviest and most prevalent material category — metals — became the next to be recycled into new products, including rare earth magnets and aluminum. Last year, the company began using 50% recycled copper in some of its charging cables that will soon expand to the XPS laptop line, and in 2024, will use recycled cobalt in laptop batteries and recycled steel in desktop displays.   “[We are] understanding if we’re prioritizing the right, sustainable materials and the right components, and doing it in a way that dematerializes as much as possible,” Green said.

Dell first introduced its Concept Luna laptop in December 2021 (and updated it a year later in 2022) as a testbed for sustainable design which has trickled into its main products, from trying out modular parts to reducing material waste. For instance, Dell first tried removing the plastic Dell logo on the laptop lid in Luna in favor of a stenciled logo straight on the aluminum chassis, then used that process in its Inspiron line of computers — a small change that’s multiplied by the scale of Dell product manufacturing.

However, there are limits to how much some recycled materials can be used in a product, Dell discovered. For instance, the company found a maximum of 35 to 40% post consumer recycled plastic in its current method, Green said. Like Panasonic, Dell developed a method to blend the old plastic with something new — in Dell’s case, a bio-based plastic that’s renewable. One composition could be 30% post-consumer plastic, 20% bio-based plastic and 20% recovered aerospace plastic, a blend that’s found in Dell’s Latitude 5000 and Precision 3000 series of laptops.  By 2030, Dell wants half of the materials it uses in products to be recycled or renewable.

Dell introduced its third year of ideas that it’s exploring with Concept Luna via a blog post in December. New this year is using predictive analytics, AI and machine learning to better anticipate component problems. Even without diagnostics, these could anticipate if your device’s hard drive may fail or battery capacity may be depleted.

Dell also expanded the number of products able to be represented by its augmented reality app, first introduced in June 2022, to help guide consumers in their own personal repairs in far more immersive ways than a simple device manual can do.

But for all these neat technological advances in diagnosing, harvesting and guiding repairs, Dell had a simpler longevity bottleneck it’s tried to fix: Making it easier for users to get spare parts. The other big pillar of sustainability is simply making sure devices last longer by ensuring the process is less painful for users.

Dell is in the process of adding QR codes on the back of its products, starting with this year’s XPS line, that users can quickly scan to get to a “personalized support experience,” as Green calls it. In short, it pre-enters your device info to Dell’s support network to provide users with access to repair manuals, spare parts and driver updates.

Admittedly, Green says Dell is implementing the QR codes in anticipation of the European Commission’s Digital Product Passport initiative, which requires more transparency in consumer tech products’ sustainability footprint. But it will still make it easier for laptop and PC owners to access the tech support they need to potentially keep devices running for longer and out of landfills when possible.





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